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Voting surges as campaigns head to finish line

More than half of ballots have already been returned for the Nov. 3 election, as campaigns ramp up for the final days of what will likely be a record-breaking turnout when Election Day ends at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The Oregon Secretary of State’s office said Wednesday that 1,541,944 ballots had been returned out of 2,949,600 eligible voters in Oregon. That means 52.3 percent of ballots are already in, with five days left to drop off ballots.

The highest percentage of votes cast so far is in Wheeler County, where 61.3% of ballots are in. Benton County has returned 60.3% and Curry County has cast 59.8%. Malheur County has the fewest returned — 43.6%, followed by Josephine at 45.3% and Umatilla at 45.5%. Other counties under the halfway mark: Baker, Columbia, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake, Linn, Marion, Morrow and Yamhill.

Some other counties that include key cities: Jackson (Medford) at 50.3% Deschutes (Bend) at 52%, Clatsop (Astoria) at 51.4%, and Multnomah (Portland) at 55.4%.

Ballots tilting Blue

Sixty-six percent of Democrats have returned ballots statewide, while 55% of Republican ballots are in. Democrats have predicted a heavy turnout by party members to vote against President Donald Trump. But Republicans say their voters are also motivated and many live in less populous areas where ballot boxes are not as plentiful. Mailing ballots creates more of a lag time between voting and tabulating turnout. Now that the deadline for mailing ballots has passed, the key will be to see if GOP returns close the gap with Democrats in the Secretary of State’s daily tabulations of arriving ballots in the run-up to Nov. 3.

Vote counting process started

Tuesday was the first day that county clerks could begin scanning bar codes on returned ballots as the first step in tallying votes.

Across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in vote-by-mail in states where voting is usually done in-person at polling places. Several states have said they may be delayed in reporting results on Nov. 3 because of the high volume of mailed-in votes.

That isn’t a problem in Oregon. All elections in Oregon have been vote-by-mail since voters approved a 1998 ballot measure approving the system. The Secretary of State’s office will begin posting results at 8 p.m. Nov. 3, and the vast majority of vote totals will be online that evening.

If you still have your ballot, it’s too late to mail it in and be sure it will be counted. Find a ballot drop box instead. Locations can be found at oregonvotes.gov/dropbox, and voters can go to oregonvotes.gov/myvote to find out if their ballot has been received.

Big bucks in Bend

Two of the most expensive legislative races in Oregon are in Bend, where a pair of Republican lawmakers are trying to hold onto their seats in districts with rising Democratic voter registration.

In Senate District 27, incumbent Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, has raised $1.25 million and spent $1.13 million, while reporting he has $129,000 in the bank. Democrat Eileen Kiely of Sunriver has raised $616,000 and spent about $570,000. She says she has $65,000 on hand to spend.

In his last re-election bid in 2016, Knopp won 60 percent of the vote against Democrat Greg Delgado. At that time, Democrats had a 1,100-voter registration edge over Republicans in the Deschutes County district. Delgado raised just over $14,000 while Knopp raised $461,000. In the past four years, the voter registration gap has swelled to 5,500, giving Democrats hope they can beat Knopp. A Kiely victory would buttress Democrats’ current 18-12 supermajority in the Senate. Of the 16 Senate seats on the Nov. 3 ballots, nine are held by Republicans.

Democrats have been frustrated in attempts to win House District 54 in Bend. The Democratic voter registration edge over Republicans in that district has grown to 8,752. Through strong campaigning and Democratic mistakes, the GOP has held on to the seat despite a dwindling minority of voters signed-up with the party. Fueled by antipathy for Trump among Bend’s enlarged Democratic voting base, the state party is betting heavily that Democratic challenger Jason Kropf can flip the seat Rep. Cheri Helt won in 2018.

Unlike the Senate race, it is tough to get a handle on the current flow of cash in House District 54. Under campaign finance rules, candidate political action committees have seven days to report contributions or expenditures to the Secretary of State. Some campaigns — including Knopp and Kiely in the Senate race — voluntarily report spending immediately. Helt and Kropf are both waiting the full seven days, which would allow for a late flood of contributions that wouldn’t show up right away on the state’s campaign finance database.

Records through Oct. 20 show that Helt had raised or received loans totaling $966,259 while spending $899,856. She reported having just over $66,000 in available cash.

Kropf had received $489,781 in cash, in-kind contributions and loans through Oct. 20. He spent $452,400 and reported having just under $27,000 in the bank.

Look to Tillamook and Columbia counties for presidential outcome

Anyone looking for a hint at who might win the presidential race should watch the vote tallies coming out of Columbia and Tillamook counties in Oregon. They are Oregon’s two “pivot counties” — places that went for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but flipped to Republican Donald Trump in 2016.

Ballotpedia, a political analysis website, found 206 out of 3,113 counties nationwide voted in the same pattern. Pivot counties can be found in 34 states. Iowa has the most, with 31 out of its 99 counties. In Maine, half of the state’s 16 counties pivoted.

Washington has five: Clallam, Cowlitz, Gray’s Harbor, Mason and Pacific. California and Idaho have none.

Columbia County went for Obama by 12% in 2008 and 5.2% in 2012. Trump won in 2016 by just under 11.5% of the votes. Tillamook County gave 9.9% of its vote to Obama in 2008 and 4.9% in 2012. Trump won by 5.6%.

Bellwether counties

Earlier on election night, voters should watch returns in Indiana and New Mexico for hints at who will win the White House.

Ballotpedia found two counties in the U.S. that have voted for every winning presidential candidate in the past 60 years, ever since Democrat John F. Kennedy beat Republican Richard Nixon in 1960.

The “bellwethers” are Valencia County, New Mexico, and Vigo County, Indiana. The counties voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016, both of whom won the Electoral College vote while losing the popular vote.